Genetic adaptation in chimpanzee subspecies

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Aida Andres

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Francois Balloux

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Project Description:

Except for humans, all other great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) are endangered. Recent work has improved our understanding of the demographic and long-term adaptive history of non-human great apes, but little is known about their recent genetic adaptations. Knowing how these species have adapted to their ecological niches is critical to understand their evolution and adaptive potential, and it is urgently required given the rapid changes to their habitats, which puts them all on the brink of extinction.

Recent work in our group, based on genome sequences of individuals from sanctuaries in Africa, revealed distinct genetic adaptations among the four chimpanzee subspecies. This is interesting as it shows that each subspecies have differentially adapted to its particular habitat. Nevertheless, thus far we have been unable to determine which environmental pressures were responsible for these adaptations.

In this project, we will investigate this question using hundreds of new genomes from samples of known geographic origin. Importantly, our team has also assessed key environmental variables (e.g. climate, diet or pathogen exposure) for each sample. We will combine these two types of information to identify genetic loci mediating subspecies adaptations, together with the environmental factors responsible for them. We will then investigate adaptations in other species (e.g. gorillas and orangutans), to have a global understanding of the influence of natural selection in the genetic and phenotypic differentiation among subspecies of primates.

Policy Impact of Research:

Like many other species, chimpanzee groups are under selective pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. We aim to identify the most relevant phenotypic and adaptive differences among subspecies, which can impact the management of natural and captive chimpanzees. Further, our insights will apply not only to recent adaptation in chimpanzees, but more generally to populations of endangered species in rapidly changing habitats.

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